An older story from 1/28/04:http://www.citylinkmagazine.comAmerica’s most overlooked
When Daddy’s little girl disappears, America goes on the alert. When Daddy’s grown-up girl disappears, America never even knows about it.
by Jim Di Paola
Nick Perris drives a white 1994 Mazda MX-6, even though the odometer just reached 130,000 miles and he’d rather just sell the thing. Yet he can’t bring himself to part with it, and not for the kind of sentimental reasons that people usually cite to justify hanging on to their old cars.
In fact, he offers a far more unusual, if not outright heartbreaking, explanation for why the Mazda sits in the driveway of the Plantation home he shares with his wife, Nancy: This car was the last place their then-18-year-old daughter, Colleen, was seen alive before she vanished more than three years ago.
On Sept. 20, 2000, Colleen told her parents she had to run some errands and would meet with them that afternoon at Pro Player Stadium in Miami to take in a Florida Marlins game. She never showed up.
Today, the Perrises are no closer to finding out what happened to their daughter than they were the day of her disappearance. This is the main reason Perris refuses to sell Colleen’s car. Producers from the Fox television program America’s Most Wanted recently told him that they may use the Mazda in a re-enactment for an upcoming segment on Colleen. Just in case, Perris has invested a few thousand dollars installing a timing belt, water pump and transmission to make sure the car is operable. The car is just one more example of Perris’ willingness to do anything that could lead to information on his daughter’s whereabouts.
To this end, however, Perris and his wife have encountered one obstacle after another. Like the families of many young adults who disappear without a trace, the Perrises were alarmed to learn that of the 200,000 people who are reported missing nationwide each year, cases involving those over 18 years old receive the least attention.
While the Perris family and the Plantation Police Department have appealed to several national nonprofit groups that support families of missing children, their pleas for help have largely been ignored. The FBI has mounted no intensive search for Colleen or her possible abductor, and the print and broadcast media have paid her disappearance scant attention, opting to pick apart high-profile, tabloid-ready cases such as the abduction of Utah girl Elizabeth Smart and the murder of long-missing Washington, D.C., intern Chandra Levy.
Currently, no equivalent of the Amber Alert, a nationwide system that informs law enforcement agencies and the public the very minute a child is reported missing or abducted, has been set up for adults. And because Colleen Perris celebrated her 18th birthday only a few months before she vanished, her parents were seemingly cut off from outlets that otherwise might have helped their search had their daughter been a minor.
“While Colleen was still a child in the eyes of many different people, she was 18, making her a legal adult,” says Plantation Police detective Joe Messina, who has spent the past three years trying to drum up attention for Colleen’s case. The bulletin board that hangs above his desk has become a collage filled with photos of the missing young woman and notes on leads that haven’t panned out. The case has become a pet project for the department’s detective bureau, as most of its 20-plus investigators know every detail about Colleen’s disappearance.
“As for national attention, it is extremely hard to get anyone to listen,” Messina says. “I’ve dealt with the press in the past and know they seem to need some type of hook, and if they don’t get it, then it’s not newsworthy. It’s frustrating.”
Although many missing teens have simply taken off on their own, Nick Perris doesn’t believe his daughter did. Hardly a troubled child, Colleen liked attending rock concerts (shows by Tom Petty and Matchbox 20 were among her last) with her friends, with many of whom she had formed seemingly inseparable relationships. As a student at Plantation High School, she loved studying theater, and the pretty, strawberry blond-haired young woman had ambitions of a professional acting career. But she was grounded enough to work after school and on weekends at the family business, the Central Park Postal Center in Plantation.
“All I can tell somebody else in my situation is that you have to keep trying and never give up,” Perris says. “But there are some days when you wonder to yourself, ‘What does it take for my daughter’s case to get the attention it needs?’ I guess,” he says with a heavy sigh, “unless it happens to an upper-middle-class family or there is some sensational twist to it — like a connection to a U.S. congressman — it seems that nobody cares.”
With really no place else to turn, the Perrises have become unwilling members of a loose network of families in South Florida searching for young relatives who have mysteriously disappeared. Among those searchers are Yves and Gail Zacot, who were able to generate some local publicity about their missing daughter, Danielle, earlier this month. The Zacots’ search began four years ago next month, when Danielle, then 25, vanished from a Winn-Dixie in Fort Lauderdale.
On Feb. 26, 1999, Danielle Zacot, a quiet and responsible graphic designer who cherished the Fort Lauderdale condominium she owned, told her boyfriend she was going grocery shopping. She never returned. As in the case of Colleen Perris, the only evidence police had was her car, which was found in the grocery store’s parking lot.
Even though they have worked closely with Fort Lauderdale Police detectives, Yves and Gail Zacot have grown frustrated with the lack of national interest in their daughter’s disappearance. Immediately after Danielle vanished, her mother says, she spent considerable time trying to get national news organizations to help widen the search. She contacted producers at every network and television show she could think of, from CNN and Court TV to Maury and the Montel Williams Show.
Like the Perris family, the Zacots garnered mild interest from America’s Most Wanted, which is hosted by former South Florida resident John Walsh, whose 6-year-old son, Adam, vanished from a Hollywood mall in 1981 and whose decapitated body was found years later. Police never found the boy’s killer.
“We got 10 seconds,” Gail Zacot says of the publicity the show gave her daughter. “Everyone said they usually focus on children.”
While the distraught mother has come to live with the understanding that missing children tend to get more attention than missing adults, this fact continues to eat at her husband. Yves Zacot has spent the past several years lobbying Congress to persuade the FBI to take over the investigation into Danielle’s disappearance.
“The only thing that keeps me going,” he wrote in a letter he sent to every U.S. senator and congressman earlier this month, “is the idea that maybe I can help prevent the same thing from happening to another family. Please do whatever you can to help me in this fight.”
If the response to his previous letter-writing campaigns to Congress is any indication, Zacot is not expecting much. “I got about 20 responses, form letters that said they would pass on the information to my local congressman,” he says with a pained expression. His local congressman also sent him a form letter.
In 2002, the Zacots learned that a man named Lucious Boyd, the son of a prominent funeral-home owner, had been convicted on charges of abducting, raping and killing 21-year-old nursing student Dawnia Dacosta. Shortly after Boyd’s arrest, Fort Lauderdale Police detectives told the Zacots that Boyd might have had something to do with their daughter’s case. Even though the police said they had no evidence to support this theory, Yves Zacot has latched on to it like a drowning man would a life preserver.
Earlier this year, Zacot wrote his second letter to Gov. Jeb Bush, asking that Boyd’s death sentence be downgraded to life without parole in exchange for information leading to Danielle’s whereabouts. “There are no other leads,” Zacot says. “It is through Lucious Boyd that my daughter’s case will be kept alive. In order to find out what he knows, he must be kept alive.”
Since Fort Lauderdale Police officers believe Boyd may have had a role in the disappearances of several other people, Zacot says it would be unfair for the state to execute Boyd without first trying to find out what part, if any, he might have played in these other cases. (Boyd has flatly refused to cooperate with these investigations.)
To help his cause, Zacot has turned to several nonprofit, anti-death-penalty agencies in the hope of overturning Boyd’s death sentence. “For the Zacots, people need to understand that they believe the killer has information no one else has,” says Kate Lowenstein, the national organizer for Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, based in Cambridge, Mass. “The state should be behind the Zacots and the relatives of the other missing persons in order for those families to get some closure. It is years of hell not knowing what happened.”
Blinking red light
It is not unusual for parents of missing children to fall into a kind of time warp, where days, months and years pass slowly and painfully. It took Nancy Perris three years to muster the courage to clean up her daughter’s room, which she had left cluttered with makeup kits and clothes.
The Zacots kept Danielle’s Fort Lauderdale condo as long as they could, but eventually, Gail Zacot packed her daughter’s things and moved them to her Plantation townhouse for safekeeping. “That is something no parent should have to do,” she says stoically.
“We still kept everything,” her husband defensively points out, in case someone might mistakenly believe he has given up on finding his daughter. “Everything is waiting for her upstairs.”
The Zacots and Perrises believe that if their cases receive national attention, their daughters, or at least their remains, will be found. Nick Perris cites the disappearance of Chandra Levy, whose body was eventually recovered after investigators and the public mounted several massive searches in and around Washington, D.C. And clearly, the widespread coverage given to the abduction of Elizabeth Smart led to her return home and the arrest of her kidnappers last year.
On good days, Perris believes that such attention could lead to Colleen’s being found alive. On grim days, he prays that her remains will be found and he and his wife will be able to give her a proper burial.
“I want my daughter alive,” he says. “But if we found her remains, at least we can know what happened. And then, we can try to get over it. At least, I think that is what we can do.”
The Perrises got their first shot at national attention in September. Detective Messina used his resources to get Colleen profiled in a program sponsored by the Florida Marlins called Picture Them Home. During the break between the third and fourth innings of every Marlins home game, the JumboTron at Pro Player displays pictures of missing South Florida residents. While the program focuses mainly on children, its supervisors made an exception for Colleen, who had attended many Marlins games with her parents.
Nick Perris says that he was awed when he saw Colleen’s face on the JumboTron and that this exposure prompted producers from America’s Most Wanted to green-light the brief segment on his daughter’s disappearance. Messina, in fact, traveled to the show’s headquarters in Maryland to man the phone lines after the segment aired. While none of the more than 90 tips the show generated panned out, Perris says he got a taste of what he can expect if Colleen’s disappearance receives more exposure.
While America’s Most Wanted told Perris it will air a longer segment on Colleen Feb. 28, there is, of course, no guarantee it will result in any solid lead. The film crew has not yet returned to film the re-enactment, and Perris’ constant lobbying of the producers has taught him that taped segments sometimes get bumped for breaking stories.
Even if that happens, Perris is not about to give up. A missing-persons flier with a picture of his daughter is taped to the front door and the cash register of the Central Park Postal Center. It may not be much, but he wants to make sure Colleen’s face is the first and last things customers see when entering and leaving his store.
This sense of hope is one of the many things that Perris has in common with Yves Zacot. “If I am not able to investigate my daughter’s disappearance, I have nothing to live for,” the 66-year-old Zacot says.
Still, Perris is grateful for the attention, no matter how belated, America’s Most Wanted has given his daughter’s disappearance — “and a little guilty,” he says. “Do you know how many other Colleens are out there? I mean, sometimes I wonder why people would think my situation is special. But I guess you take what you can get and be grateful. But if you really want to know how I’m feeling? Apprehensive.”
Messina says he, too, is worried that the show will only lead to bad news about what really happened to Colleen Perris. Yet he is equally worried that it will turn up nothing.
“What happens if it all results in nothing?” the veteran detective asks. “Then, Nick and I will have to look at each other and wonder: Where do we go from here?”